Vegetable of the Week, Asparagus

The noun vegetable indicates an edible plant or part of a plant, but frequently rules out seeds and generally sweet fruit, this in general means the leaf, stem, or root of a plant.

In a non-biological sense, the consequence of this word is in the main founded on culinary and cultural belief therefore, the use of the word is to some extent random and skewed. For example, some people believe mushrooms to be vegetables even though they are not biologically plants; they are fungi while others consider them a separate food category.

clip_image002[4]Anyway enough of all that lets get to the vegetable of the week!

Eating the first succulent green spears of British grown asparagus dipped into a melted butter or a sumptuous boiled or poached egg reminds me that nothing beats the taste of seasonal food and the closer it is grown to where you live the fresher it will be.

It took a long time for Maureen to acquire the taste for asparagus but since she has it has become difficult to stop her from having it with almost everything!

The English asparagus season officially starts on 1st May, but depending on the weather can start as early as mid-April the harvest lasts for approximately 6 weeks, until mid-June. Although asparagus was once only grown in certain areas of the United Kingdom, for example the Vale of Evesham, East Anglia, Kent, and London, it is now grown in most regions of the United Kingdom.

Best British Season Is; end of April. May and June

It’s a grand accompaniment to seasonal meats and fish, steam, grill or roast it, add it to tarts or blend it into soups no matter which way you cook it you are going to be in for a scrumptious treat.

British asparagus, with its intense, complex flavour, is considered by the British, at least to be the finest in the world. Its deep, verdant flavour is attributed in large part to Britain’s cool growing conditions.

Traditionally only green asparagus has been grown here, but there are numerous types and varieties. Regardless of whether you’re buying Asparagus tips, the thin ‘sprue’ asparagus (Maureen’s favourite) or the huge ‘jumbo’ spears, always choose stems that are firm and thriving, rather than dry and wrinkly.

  • Avoid any stems that are discoloured, scarred or turning slimy at the tips
  • If you’re using whole spears, then make sure the buds are tightly furled.
  • If you’re making soup, though, you could also use the cheaper, loose-tipped spears you sometimes find on market stalls.

Early records of asparagus crop growing trace it back to Greece some two thousand or so years ago. The Greeks understood that asparagus possessed medicinal properties and recommended it as a cure for toothaches.

Asparagus contains more folic acid than any other vegetable, it is also a source of fibre, potassium, vitamins A and C and glutathione, a phytochemical with antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties.

English Asparagus is in my view the finest in the world and we had some last night. AKA ‘Grass’ in greengrocer terms it comes in lots of various grades and when really thin is very grass like, this is usually known as sprue and is much cheaper, this in no way means it tastes any less scrumptious than those thick jumbo stalks that tend to fetch the real money.

Sprue makes the most magnificent creamy vegetable soup, served hot or even chilled. Without a doubt sprue is Maureen’s favourite grade especially for pickling in her special brine and that way we can have English asparagus for a lot longer than its short season.

If you grow your own then I honestly envy you, and for those of us that do not, always look for crisp firm spears, asparagus benefits from cooking as soon as possible after picking, and if possible, it is best on the same day as picking.

This is why asparagus from abroad can never be as good as our own home-grown crop. These delectable tender purple-green stalks sadly have a short season, so eat lots of it and enjoy the season while it is with us as it traditionally ends on 21st June, the longest day of the year. Asparagus should first be tied together in bundles, not too tightly; just tight enough to stop them falling out of the bundle then these should be plunged into sufficient boiling salted water so that they float. Return the water to the boil and boil gently for about 5 minutes (depending upon the thickness of the stalks) until just cooked (The Romans had a Saying “As Quick as Asparagus”) which just goes to show how quick it is to cook.

Buying Asparagus

Look for firm but tender stalks with good colour and closed tips. Smaller, thinner stalks are not necessarily tenderer; in fact thicker specimens are often better due to the smaller ratio of skin to volume.

Storing Asparagus

Once picked, asparagus rapidly loses flavour and tenderness, so it really is worth eating it on the day you buy it. If that isn’t possible, store asparagus in the fridge with a damp paper towel wrapped around the bottom of the stalks and you can get away with keeping it for a couple of days.

Preparing and Cooking Asparagus

In spite of what you may have read or heard, it’s not necessary to buy an asparagus steamer, nor to bind the asparagus into a bundle and cook it upright in a pan.

  • For the best results, wash the stems thoroughly in a sink full of cold water.
  • Then trim the stalks and, if the lower part of the stem seems tough when sliced and eaten raw, lightly peel the bottom third of the stem.
  • Drop loose spears into a pan of boiling water and cook until just tender.
  • The cooking time varies according to the thickness of the stems but ranges between 3-5 minutes. Once it’s cooked, drain, and pat dry on kitchen paper.
  • If you’re serving it cold, you’ll get the best flavour if, rather than cooling under the cold tap, you spread the hot asparagus out to cool on some kitchen paper.
  • Traditionally matched with hollandaise sauce, asparagus picked just a day or so ago (try your nearest farmers’ market) requires minimal messing with.
  • Enjoy it with a drizzle of olive oil, a twist of black pepper and perhaps a few shavings of Parmesan cheese.
My Favourite Recipes for Asparagus;

Asparagus and Shrimp Risotto

Asparagus with An Herb Sauce

Asparagus and Bacon Quiche

Asparagus With Quails Eggs and Prosciutto

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